Victories of Black History Month

Drawing the Blinds
Artworks by Titus Kaphar

Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014, Titus Kapha

In this second post on Black History Month, I hope to do justice to the movement’s radical successes. First, I discussed the educational context within which Negro History Week was created. If the dismal education for Black communities sounds exaggerated, or hard to connect with, a slew of writers provided a sense of what it felt like to live under the oppression of white education, among many oppressions.

For example, Richard Wright in his autobiography Black Boy, describes himself as student during the same era as Woodson. Throughout his childhood, Wright struggles not only to learn and be allowed to read, but also to find anyone to talk with about the history and ideas important to the Black community. Wright explains:

Nothing about the problems of Negroes was ever taught in classrooms at school; and whenever I would raise these questions with the boys, they would either remain silent or turn the subject into a joke. They were vocal about the petty individual wrongs they suffered, but they possessed no desire for a knowledge of the picture as a whole.

And later, in contrast to these sentiments, Wright notices within himself something radically different growing: autonomy, personal and racial pride:

I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle, I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness.
Michael Brown, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, 2014, Titus Kaphar

Similar examples abound in all narratives about the Black community throughout American history. Given this situation, given the mountains to overcome, was Woodson successful, and what exactly was his vision for Negro History Week? Luckily, Woodson himself wrote about these first years. Each year he wrote a recap of what worked and what didn’t. On the 1st anniversary of Negro History Week, writing in the Journal of Negro History he helped create, Woodson provides a manifesto for Negro History Week that is a subtle criticism of the nature of American history in his day, but more straightforwardly an argument for the urgency of history for the Black community.

Woodson begins his exposition by quoting many of the lofty ideals historians attribute to the study of history. In a span of three paragraphs he quotes nine different philosophers, thinkers, and historians to give a sense of the urgency and power of historical knowledge. Building off the soaring rhetoric he notes that many in the Black community lack a connection to history and therefore suffer a peculiar and acute deficiency:

Not to know what one’s race has done in former times is to continue always a child. “If no use were made of the labor of past ages,”it has been said, “the world would remain always in the infancy of knowledge.” The Negro knows practically nothing of his history and his “friends” are not permitting him to learn it. The Negro, therefore, is referred to as a child-like race.

While African Americans are not taught anything positive about their pasts, the countries and lineages they came from, while they know nothing of the great deeds of the past, how African Americans built this country, Woodson explains, they instead are taught racial mythology that reinforce hate and prejudice:

According to our education and practice, if you kill one of the group, the world goes on just as well or better; for the Negro is nothing, has never been anything, and never will be anything but a menace to civilization.

In short, the black community deserves the treatment they receive for they are racially inferior. This results in a deplorable situation he describes as, “merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” He goes on to lament that, “the doctrine has been thoroughly drilled into the whites and the Negroes have learned well the lesson themselves; for many of them look upon other races as superior and accept the status of recognized inferiority.” Woodson then argues that only a true understanding of history, a redemptive history, can counter this indoctrination because:

The fact is, however, that one race has not accomplished any more good than any other race, for God could not be just and at the same time make one race the inferior of the other. But if you leave it to the one to set forth his own virtues while disparaging those of others, it will not require many generations before all credit for human achievements will be ascribed to one particular stock. Such is the history taught the youth today.

Consequently, this leads Woodson to the belief that:

Just as thorough education in the belief in the inequality of races has brought the world to the cat-and-dog stage of religious and racial strife, so may thorough instruction in the equality of races bring about a reign of brotherhood through an appreciation of the virtues of all races, creeds and colors. In such a millennium the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.
Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother, 2014, Titus Kaphar

It’s important to realize that there’s a literalness here. When Woodson talks about saving the past he doesn’t simply use exaggerated rhetoric to make his point. Rather, he felt rightly convinced that certain documents, artifacts, histories, and stories would be forever forgotten if a concerted effort to recall them wasn’t made. In a subtle manner Woodson also wholly criticizes the contemporary historic scene that taught racial mythology, propaganda infused history instead of anything resembling truthful history. He attacks the orthodoxy of American History, but retains a belief, maybe naive, maybe just hopeful, in the redemptive potential of learning true history. There’s something kind and heroic in his belief that when white people learn truthful history they will shed their racism. He gives his oppressors the benefit of the doubt which they don’t seem to deserve.

In that vein, what’s amazing to me is that despite the dreary, oppressive situation, Woodson finds reasons to feel hopeful, believing in the power of a historical education. It’s a rare sort of intellectual passion and love that can believe so much in history, in ideas, and in knowledge, to create lasting and urgent change. To that end he invokes God for help. He finishes on a note of almost utopian dreaming, a religious feeling for the possibility of reconciliation, through, of all things, learning history.

Let the light of history enable us to see that “enough of good there is in the lowest estate to sweeten life; enough of evil in the highest to check presumption; enough there is of both in all estates to bind us in compassionate brotherhood,to teach us impressively that we are of one dying and one immortal family.” Let truth destroy the dividing prejudices of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank. With the sublime enthusiasm and heavenly vision of the Great Teacher let us help men to rise above the race hate of this age unto the altruism of a rejuvenated universe.
The Jerome Project, 2014, Titus Kaphar

His is, admirably, a vision not of the triumph of one race over another, not the reclamation of the mantle from white folks, but an equal partnership. Moreover, we can notice that Woodson’s vision is still necessary. If the current upsurge in police brutality teaches us anything it’s that not much has changed for the Black community, that we’ve learned little from history, that history is repeating itself in front of our eyes, and that, by embracing Woodson’s vision of the redemptive and cleansing value of truthful history, we can overcome our embrace of racial mythology.

Given his vision, we can then ask, how successful was Woodson in these early efforts? If his ambitious vision entailed a widespread interest in the topic, I don’t think Woodson could envision how quickly and deeply his week would take root. Amazingly, communities across America quickly responded to the week. Woodson himself reported receiving requests for literature, for stories, for primary documents and ideas to use during the week, from all around the country, from all different types of institutions and associations. Each year, the celebration grew in scope, in depth, and in significance. Just three months after the first celebration, Woodson’s periodical The Journal of Negro History noted, “The observance of Negro History Week proved to be one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association.” Reporting after the 2nd celebration of the week, Woodson summarized:

The important results of the celebration may be summarized as creating a demand for Negro pictures and Negro literature, disabusing the Negro mind of the idea of inferiority, an increasing conviction among the whites that racial bias undermines all truth, and the growing spirit of cooperation to the end of further extending the researches into Negro History that it may be popularized throughout the world.

The 3rd year saw a considerable bump in press coverage, the 4th year managed to provide materials in nearly every public school that catered to the Black population. Reporting only just 5 years later, Woodson lauded the monumental and historical celebration of the week in Congress, a celebration that honored past and current African American Congresspeople.

The Jerome Project, 2014, Titus Kaphar

In just five years, Dr. Woodson’s attempt to integrate African and African American history in the general curriculum made its way through local towns and the bigger cities, through churches and social lodges. It was publicized in newspapers and radio stations throughout the country, until it found its way into Congress. Each year, calls and letters would come in from all over the country, from all different types of communities, requesting more information, more literature and more pamphlets. He fed a country starved for historical truths.

Even in early years, the week prompted what would become for some, a lifelong devotion to African American history. To highlight one example, famed black writer and historian, Dr. Harold Cruse, explained that Negro History Week was was “an influential annual celebration that marked the real beginnings of my youthful intellectual life in Harlem, New York.” Cruse would go on to publish many important works and articles, none more so than the seminal, still relevant, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

More than that, as many Black historians attest, Woodson tapped into and permeated a vital sense of Black identity, strengthening the role of history in the African American experience. As historian Darlene Clark Hine explains, it’s not simply a knowledge base, but a historical way of living that emerged as an integral part of the Black experience:

Black History Month culture is grounded in a specific African American historical and ideological orientation, which insists that the acquisition and generation of knowledge of the past is an invaluable cultural, intellectual, and political resource. Or put another way, black history, art, literature, and dynamic expressive culture, including dance, music, and film, are components of an arsenal of counter-discourses that have historically refused to pay homage to white supremacist discourses. Instead, they nourished oppositional consciousness and helped to absorb the pain of racist discrimination and to deflect group internalization of negative portrayals, stereotypes, and denials of black humanity.

Looking back on the over-commercialized and co-opted history of Black History Month, it’s easy to forget the revolutionary roots of Woodson’s work. Hopefully, this encounter with the early years of Negro History Week can remind us of the radical impact African American history can still have on our lives, and on our country as a whole. While wholly tragic that Woodson’s vision remains almost as applicable today, we cannot deny the change that his work has created, which deserves our respect and celebration.

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